Coronavirus Closes Sports Venues, Opens Door for Creative Fan Engagement
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sports stars and organizations are learning new skills to stay connected with fans despite closed arenas — being good with the ball alone won’t cut it.
By Jeff Eisenband
On March 12, Major League Baseball announced what had become inevitable: Spring training would be canceled and the start of the regular season postponed. The next morning, the Cincinnati Reds’ David Carpenter tweeted at teammate and fellow pitcher Trevor Bauer, asking if Bauer could help organize a “pickup baseball game, sandlot style,” referring to the 1993 coming-of-age film.
Bauer said he was in and started contacting major and minor league players. His Momentum media network organized the logistics, setting the wiffle ball game for 7 p.m. PST two days after the MLB decision, at an Arizona field. As a coronavirus precaution, the game was closed to outsiders; Momentum streamed the game on Twitter and YouTube.
Bauer is at the vanguard of a new frontier, engaging with fans in a sports world without live, organized sports. It’s a challenge that’s inspiring others, as sports teams, leagues and organizations turn to increasingly creative tactics to stay connected with fans at a time the games they’ve waited for can no longer go ahead.
The Phoenix Suns’ content team decided to livesteam on Twitch the team’s scheduled matchup versus the Mavericks as an NBA 2K20 game. The Mavs (piloted by the 2K League‘s own Lawrence “YoBuddy” Norman) topped the Suns (represented by Antonio “UniversalPhe” Saldivar), 150-136.
If you want to be disruptive and engage with your fans, this is a time they are literally sitting around waiting to hear from you.
Joe Favorito, sports communications professional
Professional athletes have started to mobilize with virtual tournaments of their own. NASCAR and iRacing have launched the Pro Invitational Series, with top drivers racing from simulators in their homes, airing on Fox Sports 1. (The inaugural race drew 903,000 viewers.) Meanwhile, NBA 2K is hosting a 16-player tournament with competition airing over four nights on ESPN (it started last Friday and ends this coming Sunday). The NFL’s “The Checkdown” has also hosted an eight-player Madden bracket on Twitch.
None of these initiatives were preplanned, but their initial success suggests they could serve as a template.
“It’s one of those things you go into without an expectation,” Bauer says. “You say this would be a really cool idea, I’d be interested in it. Everybody else seemed interested as well.”
The game broadcast organized by Bauer lasted just over an hour and accumulated 250,000 viewers. That number continues to climb as fans watch the archived videos. Bauer also launched a GoFundMe page, which has raised about $20,000 for Reds game day staff, now out of work for an indefinite period.
Coronavirus restrictions have since tightened and a follow-up game is unlikely. But Bauer’s finding other avenues, producing content for both Momentum and his own channels that allows fan engagement. Monumental Sports is airing video game simulations of Wizards and Capitals games on NBC Sports Washington. He encourages other athletes to do the same.
“Little things that you don’t notice … are so interesting to fans who don’t get to see your day-to-day life,” Bauer says. “Document everything you’re doing — your trip to the grocery store, what you’re cooking, how you’re entertaining yourself on quarantine.”
Others who have taken the plunge have also seen significant interest. “It was aggressive,” says Allison Harissis, the Suns’ senior manager of social media, referring to the response when they first tweeted to fans about their NBA 2K20 matchup with the Mavericks.
The news whipped through NBA circles, and help started pouring in within hours. “We were building the plane while we were getting ready to take off,” says Dean Stoyer, the Suns’ chief marketing and communications officer.
According to the Suns, the stream reached 127,000 unique viewers. Devin Booker — the actual player — hosted the stream on his page too. The global stream reached three times the number of people compared with a standard regional Suns broadcast. Meanwhile in Major League Soccer, the New England Revolution’s simulated 4-4 tie against the Portland Timbers reached 85,000 on Facebook with 63,000 views on Twitter.
And athletes are doing more than gaming to engage with their fanbases. Golfer Padraig Harrington is giving lessons from his backyard. Trae Young is shooting 3-pointers with socks.
“If you want to be disruptive and engage with your fans, this is a time they are literally sitting around waiting to hear from you,” says Joe Favorito, a sports communications professional who has worked with the Knicks, the 76ers and the U.S. Tennis Association, among others.
“You can have your players out there and your coaches doing everything they can. If you can have a great fitness instructor and no one can get to yoga, why don’t you stream a class?” Favorito says.
At some point, athletes will return to venues, maybe without fans at first. Before spring training was canceled, some MLB teams were encouraging players to use their own pens when signing autographs. But experts say that ultimately players can’t afford to turn their back on fans. “I think people will think twice about it a little bit,” Favorito says. “Maybe they’ll be cautious. Maybe they’ll have rubber gloves in their back pocket. But I don’t think that connection is going to go away.” Eventually, Favorito predicts, after being a little standoffish for a while, players will return to seeking physical contact with fans. “The interaction that you can have from high-fives and hugs is still vastly important. People will just be safer about it,” he says.
Bauer agrees, adding that while some players will be wary at first, others will jump right back into physical contact with fans. “Fans are the lifeblood of all sports,” he says. “Without the fans, none of us exist.”
Until that physical contact is possible again, the general public and their sporting heroes need one another. Fans need an escape, even if temporary, from the uncertainty all around them. Players need to stay connected with fans to maintain their brand. And ball skills alone won’t be enough.
They might also need to learn how to turn on a camera or set up a video game stream by themselves.